Are you sick of overwrought metaphors, unnecessarily big words and mawkish moralizing dressed up in highfalutin language? You’re not alone. The American literary establishment has been in the grip of talentless hacks for at least the past three decades, with shysters like David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster and others allowed to pass off substanceless word salad as authentic literature. My deep, burning hatred of “real” American literature comes from the fact that I was forced to read many of these hacks in college and take their writing seriously. It’s a perfect catch-22: these books are deliberately written to be confusing, so when you inevitably get frustrated with the likes of Infinite Jest or The New York Trilogy, you end up blaming yourself, thinking you’re not smart enough to understand the author’s hidden meaning.
As John Dolan wrote, “Those who squirt impenetrable clouds of ink do so for the same reasons squids do.”
Published just after the turn of the century, B.R. Myers’ book was a grenade rolled into the bunker of the New York literary establishment. Accused of shilling for the emperor in all his nakedness, Myers’ targets responded with vitriol and anger, the funniest/most ridiculous responses collected at the end of the book (the essay was originally published, in truncated form, in The Atlantic). A Reader’s Manifesto is a must-own because it articulates precisely why modern literature is such garbage, from basic prose all the way up to the themes that these writers obsess over.
You’ll find more literary merit in a Roosh V Forum post then in the entirety of the modern literary establishment.
Myers starts off by naming the cardinal sin of modern books: pretension. As American writers have become increasingly parochial and boring, their prose has inflated in response, like a pufferfish warding off predators. The writers of yesteryear who actually lived interesting lives—Bukowski, Hemingway, Céline—wrote simply and directly, without flowery, page-long metaphors or treacly dialogue. The writers of today, who have all the life experience of teenage virgins, create vast scrap heaps of useless adjectives:
Our “literary” writers aren’t expected to evince much in the way of brain power. Musing about consumerism, bandying about words like “ontological,” chanting Red River hokum as if it were a lost book of the Old Testament: this is what passes for intellectual content today. Nor do writers need a poet’s sensibility or a sharp eye. It is the departure from natural speech that counts, not what, if anything, is being arrived at. A sufficiently obtrusive idiom can even induce critics to overlook the sin of a strong plot. Conversely, though more rarely, a concise prose style can be pardoned if a novel’s pace is slow enough, as was the case with Ha Jin’s aptly titled Waiting, which won the National Book Award in 1999.
Myers goes on to skewer five of the most overrated, talentless phonies to ever inflict themselves on American letters: Auster, McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, and David Guterson. I would have appreciated a takedown of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but I suppose it’s just as well seeing as an accurate deconstruction of that turd would take forever to put together. In each chapter, Myers identifies not only the writer’s bad prose—used as a smokescreen to hide the utter banality of their works—but their reliance on tired, moldy cliches. Every single one of these “intellectual” writers relies on tropes and ideas that were already regarded as hackneyed a hundred years ago:
This sort of thing might get Hass’ darkly meated heart pumping, but it’s really just bad poetry reformatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose. The obscurity of who’s will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author’s mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn’t ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse’s bowels.
Myers’ own prose has a sly comic quality; not too insulting, not too lenient, he butchers the writers of modern America and their slavering supporters in the pages of The New York Review of Books et al. with the same level of furor. In Myers’ estimation, the glad-handing and ass-kissing in the literary industry have created an incestuous system whereby bad writers like Auster or McCarthy continue to receive accolades for political reasons or, because the critics can’t understand the books’ squid-ink prose, they falsely assume there’s some kind of deeper meaning.
Good stories, strong characters and entertainment have taken a backseat to intellectual onanism.
Not only that, A Reader’s Manifesto will help you realize that there’s nothing wrong with liking so-called “genre fiction” or “pulp” (well, some of it, anyway); those books are actually entertaining. Indeed, in his chapter on “Muscular Prose,” Myers unfavorably compares Cormac McCarthy to Louis L’Amour, stating that not only was the latter a better writer and storyteller, his novels were a more truthful and honest depiction of the West than McCarthy’s. Yet the literary establishment, for all their “sensitivity,” shuns L’Amour because he didn’t use multiple-paragraph metaphors to describe horses defecating or something.
Myers closes out A Reader’s Manifesto with a response to his angry critics, none of whom understood the thrust of his argument. He also makes a humorous jab at modern literature with his final chapter, “Ten Rules for ‘Serious’ Writers”:
The joy of being a writer today is that you can claim your work’s flaws are all there by design. Plot doesn’t add up? It was never meant to; you were playfully reworking the conventions of traditional narrative. Your philosophizing makes no sense? Well, we live in an incoherent age, after all. The dialogue is implausible? Comedy often is. But half the jokes fall flat? Ah! Those were the serious bits. Make sure, then, that your readers can never put a finger on what you are trying to say at any point in the book. Let them create their own test — you’re just the one who gets paid for it.
If I were to criticize A Reader’s Manifesto for anything, it’s that Myers doesn’t go nearly far enough in his attack. Yes, the literary writers of today are terrible, and yes, the critics who praise them are disgusting boot-lickers, but the real problem with modern literature stems from the universities. From the minute they enroll in college, prospective young writers are forced to study the likes of Wallace, Toni Morrison, Robert Creeley and other talentless losers who can’t create a decent plot, can’t write a believable character, would be completely ignored were it not for English professors forcing their students to run up their loan debt buying them every semester. It’s the professors, jamming bright-eyed, bushy-eyed young men and women into the Strunk & White straitjacket, who are killing American literature, either by stripping young writers of their ability to depict the world naturally or by just plain discouraging them from writing to begin with.
This is why A Reader’s Manifesto is required reading: it’s the most complete articulation of what is wrong with modern literature out there. It’s a necessary book for young men and women who want to become better writers, and a great read for older bibliophiles who are alienated by modern American letters.
Click here to buy A Reader’s Manifesto.
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